George [World Premiere]
At several nights of the 17th annual Doc Fortnight, MoMA’s annual international festival of nonfiction film, Jeffrey Perkins, a New York-based artist and filmmaker, premiered his feature-length documentary, George, a labor of love about the Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas, one of the founders of the Fluxus art movement.
I include the phrases “one of” and “art movement” because this film will, no doubt, now heavily influence the ongoing decades-old parameters of a discussion about whether Maciunas was, indeed, “one of” the Fluxus founders or The Founder and whether Fluxus is, was, or will be actually a “movement” or even “art,” at all. Either way, the informative, fun, and intellectually stimulating film Perkins has created provides a new roadmap for debate and discussion and should prove beneficial in spreading to the culture at large, some food for thought about Maciunas, Fluxus, the avant garde, and the many ambiguities existing therein.
There is no dispute that Fluxus—as it appears today entering the MoMA-certified pantheon of “art history”—would not have evolved without Maciunas’s direction and it certainly would not have been named or developed as it has without his quirky influence. After his premature death in 1978, the influence and ideas of Maciunas have shaped the aftermath of the Fluxus story. This film explores some, but not all, of the meandering and tangled threads that followed the original Fluxus creation myth through to George’s early demise from pancreatic cancer. But the explosive question of Fluxus origins emerges not because he conceived the group as a “collective” but because it manifested something that was already in the air in the late 1950s and early 1960s: new ways of working, new ways of seeing and thinking, new relationships with output, i.e. product, and with the creative process, i.e. being. Once upon a time, we are told, a fellow named “George” grabbed a healthy portion of these disorienting new approaches that would later sweep the mainstream and labeled them “Fluxus,” the notable 1960s veteran, Yoko Ono, fluxist, tells us. Yes, everything that preceded 1970—and much afterward—was influenced by the curious Mr. Maciunas, she posits between the lines and her contemporaries seem to agree.
Indeed, every now and then one-of-a-kind artists do anticipate future developments—sometimes directly, sometimes vaguely—but it does happen. The story of “George” guides us through one of those instances. Just as Maciunas was the right guy in the right place as 1959 turned into 1960; Jeffrey Perkins, filmmaker, is in the right place at the right time today, telling the story of this unique individual, Maciunas a.k.a. “George,” in a period when a lot of people are finally ready to hear it. Our materialistic culture, which takes itself much too seriously can use a big dose of Fluxus about now. “This has been going on for nine years,” said Perkins of the time it has taken to create this film—about a man who died suddenly, forty years ago.
Perkins doesn’t only tell us, he shows us, with the help of his editor, Jessie Stead, who uses the screen to demonstrate a wide array of Fluxus-inspired visual trickery, both of the vintage variety and newly minted, to allow the words being spoken to take hold in the time-based visual medium of film—a medium that was so important via the Fluxfilms of that era, when they joined fluxboxes, flux-objects and flux-events to convey the “Fluxus experience,” as it was called in one monograph on the subject.
“One thing about George that is very well known is that he had unique print graphic skills,” said Perkins, who set out to find just the right editor to present this optical opportunity and in Stead, he says he found she has “a certain skill… that she was clever…also that she happens to be an artist of her own work. Plus, she’s a musician, a drummer.” Indeed, the gifted Stead percussively chops and bisects the screen into sections; talking Fluxus heads are intercut with historical footage and bouncing ping-pong balls descend their way to freedom, all softening the blows of the intense intellectual circuitry being hurled at the viewer. “I always thought that Fluxus was a very high brow, intellectual phenomenon,” admits Perkins. But together, Stead and Perkins created a visually friendly narrative that conveys the complexities and battles of the ’60s art world but that goes down easy and looks contemporary. Perkins said, “There may have been a part of him missing in this film,” referring to the cerebral component, but this reviewer thought the film struck a good balance.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond, Conceptual Art (originally Concept Art as coined by fluxist Henry Flynt) and Performance Art (originally Events as coined by another George, the fluxist Brecht) took the world by storm and those disembodied and anthropomorphic tendencies, respectively, introduced and advanced by Fluxus, are not lost to the look of this film or its creative audio track. What could have been a dry, historical retelling of the George-Fluxus story, is an entertaining and visceral but factually thorough cinematic mind-meld with the film’s round-headed, short-haired, bespectacled subject and his odd, mechanical Eastern European accent.
Maciunas was born in pre-Soviet Lithuania and as we learn of his immersion in military history and the post-war invasion of the Russians that inspired it, his family story comes into focus but then retreats again as militarism, regimentation, and order advance with new implications later in life. Maciunas, like Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara before him, had a bit of the dictatorial in him, which came in handy when he was creating his legendary lists, diagrams and charts of historical activities, particularly while simultaneously countering and encouraging the “gags, Duchamp, Spike Jones and vaudeville” mayhem prevalent in Fluxus circles.
Speaking of circles, as I watched the film’s middle section, I wondered if I had wandered into a wonderful film about Fluxus instead, peppered with testimonials from the surviving principals, with “George” merely a way in. “Fluxus is a known word,” Perkins explained, “George Maciunas’s name is not as commonly known. I knew that if it was to be a portrait of George it would have to be about Fluxus as well because it was his life. So it required a certain dynamic to make it an interesting movie with cinematic power.”
So it is necessary to really learn and make observable some of the ins and outs of Fluxus to understand its, yes, founder, while understanding that George did not invent the times he was living in. LaMonte Young and Jackson Mac Low were putting together An Anthology of the avant garde in the form of a publication. Maciunas, with his inner Napoleon well-concealed, asked if he could help design it. He did, pulled off an amazing presentation using the graphic skills Perkins referred to, and before we know it, another publication followed, this one, for the first time referred to as the work of a Fluxus “collective.”
But first, Ono and Young hosted a series of legendary “new music” performances at Yoko’s Chamber Street loft preceding by a year or two Maciunas’s AG Gallery, uptown, with exhibits and events featuring the same crowd. Next, a tour was planned to promote the new “Fluxus” publication in Europe with the touring troupe being pinned with the name. So, yes, George created Fluxus but, no, he hardly invented what was in the air at the time. In fact, it was floating in Europe, too, when Maciunas and some other early fluxers arrived in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962. The “movement” really hit its stride with composer Philip Corner’s piece that recommended the noisy dismantling of a piano onstage with hammers, axes, and saws, causing a continental sensation in print and on TV. Thus was “George” propelled into his new leadership role, just as the meaning of Fluxus got murkier and murkier, while its notoriety among the world’s cockeyed cognoscenti came sharply into focus.
The ideas whose time had come reached out across the world like so many Russian bots today and did so often by mail, briefly covered in the film, and with the help of others barely mentioned, important Fluxus cohorts and contemporaries like Dick Higgins and his idea of “intermedia,” Charlotte Moormann and her New York Avant Garde Festivals, Carolee Schneeman and her performances that fought battles via the human body and the Judson Theater Company who became to dance what Fluxus was to visual art, it embodied the times. Moorman and Schneeman are often closely associated with Fluxus but never made it past the gatekeeper, Maciunas, while Higgins was in, out, then in again over the years, travelling with George in ’62, then being booted out later when he started his significant Something Else Press. Even George’s close friend, Ono, was the subject of a falling out when she had her show in Syracuse, This Is Not Here, with John Lennon. This episode is recounted in the film and is one of the many highlights.
Ono was also a friend of the filmmaker Perkins, who met her as a G.I. stationed overseas. “Yoko had been feeding me stuff George was sending her in the mail. So I read An Anthology…I read John Cage’s books…This was ’63, ’64 in Japan.” It was Ono’s influence that eventually led to “George.”
Some of the MoMA screenings were accompanied by live performances by Fluxus-related artists or those associated with the director Perkins. The one I saw featured Alison Knowles who also travelled to Europe in ’62 with Maciunas and was married to the late Higgins. At MoMA, Knowles and their daughter Jessica performed Shoes of Your Choice, a 1963 spoken word piece in which a brief, revealing, and amusing narrative inevitably emerges from the eponymous selection.
A similarly brief and similarly enchanting encounter followed with the world premiere screening of Carolee, Barbara, and Gunvor, (2018) Lynne Sachs’s nine minute cinematic collage exploring the distinctive styles and approaches of three artists. She delicately weaves them together by positioning them each in a place of familiarity and inner personal power to themselves and their work. Schneemann interacts with a film camera as a prop which becomes an inducer of memories in her Hudson Valley home; documentary maker Barbara Hammer moves around various sources of inspiration in her West Village studio and Gunvor Nelson shares glimpses of the village where she spent her childhood in Sweden. Each artist is gracefully and uniquely introduced via different relationships they have created with themselves, their environments, the filmmaker, and the audience.
After George moves through Maciunas’s beginnings in eastern Europe, his transition to New York and a strong dose of Fluxus education, the film settles into its strong third act: his years of creating artist co-ops out of former factories in Soho and the bittersweet story of his gender-bending courtship and marriage in Massachusetts, which immediately preceded his final illness, considerably worse than the frail health he had suffered through most of his life.
“I really did not know about George’s sexual proclivities. I did not know about the cross-dressing,” Perkins said about a part of his life Maciunas kept private that is sensitively explored in the documentary. “I had met him three times in 1966,” explained Perkins, who was introduced to the avant garde by Yoko Ono when the filmmaker was twenty three and to Maciunas in New York three years later. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” Perkins said. “He was basically a nerd... he had very short hair. He was somebody special… You would call him a hipster now. But the hipsters of today are more like nerds and that’s what he kind of looked like. He was very European looking.”
“In Tokyo, I had met my first European people my age,” Perkins continued. “They didn’t look like George. These were world travelers, hipsters, dope smokers. George was a kind of aristocrat. I think he thought so. Certainly his education was. He was a very bright guy.”
While only a partial glimpse of the “movement” and its motivations, the Fluxus middle of George was a necessary detour, complete with a political analysis by the brainy Flynt, setting the stage for the sad but utopian ending, which not only featured George’s invention of Soho as a neighborhood but also the quixotic, hilarious search for a real Fluxus island, ending with all the visitors poisoned and blinded by the local flora. Giggles (theirs and ours) were provided throughout the film by Ay-o, Nam June Paik, and a rogues’s gallery of other mirthful interviewees.
In fact, George is a work of art itself that delivers guffaws that erupt unexpectedly between poignant moments from Maciunas’s childhood traumas to tangling with the mob and the attorney general of the State of New York during his innovations in constructing the loft culture of downtown Manhattan. Jeffrey Perkins’s George is an important new addition to the twin canons of art and anti-art.